Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Two Books Head to Head

by Annette Lyon

Many of my posts come directly from whatever I'm currently reading or editing, and today is no different. I've been through a lot of historical fiction lately, so without naming names, I'm going to compare two novels and what they did (and didn't) do right.

Plot & Character over Period
Novel #1 has an intricate plot that relies heavily on actual historical events. But even though these events are dramatic and real, the point of the story is actually the characters involved and how they react to the situations they're thrust into.

In other words, in spite of the historical detail (and how involved real events are in the plot), the time period is secondary. I doesn't really matter when the story is set, because the characters are real, universal, and riveting. I had to find out what they would do next and what would happen to them.

Novel #2, on the other hand, has a time period that overrides the plot. Lots and lots of events are thrown onto the page seemingly just because they happened then. Yes, they (usually) impact the main characters at some point, but too often the time period comes first, the plot second.

And the characters? For starters, there's too many to keep straight. For another, few are interesting enough that I'm compelled to keep reading. I don't really care about them. It's a book more about a particular year in history than a story about characters who feel real and face real crises.

A novel should always be about the characters. We shouldn't have to care more about the year than about the hero and heroine in order to slog through the book.

The irony with this comparison is that of the two periods, Novel #1 has (by far) the more intricate story as far as weaving in the history. Tons of dates, places, people, and events from real life are woven into a complicated plot. But again, the characters and story come first. The story is about how the hero and the heroine handle the conflicts. The history is there enhancing the story, not making it.

Novel #1 was obviously heavily researched. So was Novel #2. Some of the details in both books make that very clear.

I caught one tiny thing in Novel #1 that made me pause and wonder if it was accurate. It was so small that I don't remember what it was anymore. Novel #2, however . . . I can list off several things I know (and I'm sure many other readers know) are downright wrong. It's as if the author researched X and Y and then just assumed Z.

But Z didn't show up for another fifty or sixty years. And in another case, Z didn't show up in history until even later than that. You can't assume.

Research vs. Showing off
With Novel #1, the historical details never got in the way of the story. They were there as the backdrop of the stage the story plays out on. If we heard about a car or a hairstyle or a piece of clothing or a meal, it was described in a way that made it clear that this is simply the way things were back then. These details set the scene and make the story come alive.

Novel #2 . . . well, a lot of details feel as if they were thrown in for the sole purpose of waving a flag to get attention and yelling, "Look at me! See? I DID RESEARCH!!!!"

To be honest, I'm still trying to finish Novel #2. While I'm not a fast reader, Novel #1 was longer than this one, and I finished it in half the time #2 has taken me to get 2/3 of the way through. That alone says volumes.

Whether you write historical fiction or not, many of these same principles apply. The Hunt for Red October wouldn't have been interesting if we spent too much time learning all about Tom Clancy's research into submarines.

House wouldn't fun to watch if they spent too much time explaining all the medical terms.

The characters and the plot come first. Research is important, but don't let all the facts you dug up get your story quagmired in boring mud.

Oh, and be sure to look up Z. Just in case what you assumed about it isn't really so. It happens.


Sue said...

I could never write historical fiction.

Well. I could never write a lot of things and the world would thank me, I'm sure, but ESPECIALLY I could never write historical fiction.

Too many facts. Facts bother me.

Heather B. Moore said...

You're making me nervous, Annette (and praying that my book isn't Novel #2--if so, I have a lot of work ahead of me ;)

A lot of people ask about how a writer knows "how much" historical detail to put in--so it can be a tricky balance. The best advice I always give is to go light, and if your critique group asks for more, then add it.

Annette Lyon said...

Funny, Heather! No, of course I'm not talking about your book--any one of them!

Sue, It's tough to write anything without having to do some kind of fact checking. It's the lot of a writer. :)

Curtis said...

Well said, Annette! Excellent post

Julie Wright said...

Good points and further evidence that I should keep a certain project shelved a little longer. The research was fascinating and I loved learning what I learned, but wow, the fear of getting it all wrong . . .

Annette Lyon said...

Julie, don't worry TOO much--there's a point where you can get paralyzed over the details.

But then there are small things you can Google in 30 seconds to check on--and those things really should be accurate. This author didn't check things like that. A couple of minutes is all it would have taken.